Miskatonic River Press, $19.99, ISBN 978-0-9821818-6-7
Dead But Dreaming 2 is – what else? – a follow-up to the Lovecraftian horror anthology Dead But Dreaming. Keith Herber passed away shortly after the publication of Dead But Dreaming, but Kevin Ross strikes out alone in this one. Of course, this anthology is dedicated to the memory of the late Mr Herber, and it’s a pretty fine kind of way to honor that man, as this is a solid anthology.
This anthology expands on the “back to basics” theme of the previous volume, with Mr Ross opting to show a more varied range of stories that also highlight some human elements.
We start off with Walter Jarvis’s Taggers, in which a LAPD officer stumbles upon a case involving a kid who was apparently killed while tagging the concrete embankment of the riverbank with his gang markings. He has no idea that he’s about to stumble upon a freaky fan club of the weirdly evil kind, who is most likely may be up to no good. This one is quite predictable – it’s in this anthology, so there’s not much suspense as to what kind of folks our protagonist is up against – but it’s a solidly paced story that ends on a note that captures perfectly the bleak finality of a really bad ending.
William Meikle sends his protagonist, a house flipper, into an old house with a creepy basement in The Unfinished Basement. There are many stories of this kind in this kind of horror line, and this one reads a bit too much like those other stories. Still, it’s adequate as a filler chiller in this anthology.
Plush Cthulhu by Don Webb starts innocently enough – our schoolteacher dude spent the weekend totally smashed on drugs, and missed coming in to work on Monday. He fibs that his mother died, and you can guess what happens as a result. This one soon devolves into a psychological horror tale that has a fine share of hair-raising as well as heartbreaking moments. I end up feeling sorry for the poor guy, I really do.
Darrell Schweitzer’s Class Reunion is about a class reunion that goes horribly wrong. Nothing too surprising here – another filler chiller to pass the time.
Scott David Anioloswski is next with First Nation, which sees three men in the wilderness encountering an ancient evil who would just love to drop by for dinner. This one is scary, gory, and well-paced enough to be entertaining.
WH Pugmire’s Your Ivory Hollow combines Marquis de Sade’s infamous vices with the alluring temptations of the Lovecraftian kind, as a man recounts how his lover, a poet, came into possession the Marquis’s skull – or so it is said to be – and became an overnight creative genius as a result. Of course, there is always a price to pay for such nice things. I love this story, and I especially love the twist in the ending – it’s everything gruesome and sexy and creepy in a disgusting-seductive manner. Just the way it should be, really.
Michael Tice’s The Spell of the Eastern Sea isn’t scary as much as it is a fantasy story about a man who discovers his unusual calling in life – to help some seamen trapped by an ancient Kingsport curse to find some succor in what is left of their lives. It’s an interesting and very readable story, a nice change from the usual “darkness and death and everyone dies” type of stories while still remaining in theme with the rest of this anthology.
Kevin Ross’s Dark Heart is another tale of monsters in the woods. This one is more of a tragedy than horror, most because it involves children. This is not a story I’d be reading again in a while, but I can’t deny that it works as a horror tale.
Transmission by TE Grau is an interesting story, in that this one doesn’t have monsters as much as it plays on the sense of alienation one can feel in a desert, which may or may not be an euphemism for life (depending on how you look at things). Our hero is driving down the highway through the more desolate stretches of Nebraska, looking for a purpose in life beyond violence, when he hears stumbles upon a radio station of sorts that would change his life, so to speak. This one is more about people who are so lost that they find comfort and even faith in the damnation promised by the Old Masters. This is a solid tale that works from start to finish.
John Goodrich’s N Is For Neville tells about a bunch of dilettantes who hold parties and enact old rituals to alleviate their ennui, until one day they happen to summon the real thing. This one is cute in a Tales from the Crypt way, but there are other more interesting stories in this anthology.
Daniel Powell’s The Timucuan Portal is about a stupid father who refuses to believe his kid when the boy insists that there is something terrifying in the garden – he sports bruises on his arms to back up his account. The idiot is all, “Oh, whatever. The boy’s bruise is becoming more septic-looking? Put some lotion on it. People warn me away from the woods? What losers.” I don’t know whether this is the author’s intention, but the most terrifying thing about this lame tale is the protagonist’s limitless stupidity and inability to emote in any manner that marks him as a human being.
Joseph S Pulver, Sr really wants to win an award or something, because his No Healing Prayers are all in short fragmented sentences, one line per paragraph. This is either the rambling of a senile old coot at the last moments of his life or a tale of monsters actually coming to get him. Either way, the whole thing is gimmicky as hell, but I have to admit, it does evoke a pretty good sense of increasing paranoia and desperation that can be quite infectious.
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s The Dissipation Club has a premise that has been done many times before, but it still manages to entertain. Our hero, a more brawny and less employable Dr Watson to his Sherlock Holmes buddy of a “ghost-hunter”, helps his buddy look into a missing wealthy young man. All trails lead to a very exclusive club for the rich called the Dissipation Club, and the secrets contained inside the Club’s vaults surpass anything our hero can imagine. There is very Clive Barker-feel to this story that I like, but I wish the story has had more surprises for me.
David Annandale’s Lure is pretty surprising: libraries can be scary places, especially with all those shadowy corners in practically deserted areas, and this story makes the most out of such a setting. Of course there are creepy books in such a library, and the story builds up slowly from mundane and routine into a glorious kind of schizophrenia that is absolutely terrifying.
Rick Hautala’s The Call is well written enough, and the theme of a doomed father through the eyes of a hapless boy can cut pretty deep. However, I find the whole thing just stupid. Why bring your boy to a lake where you saw a monster that ate your friend when you were a boy? It’s not like the boy is some kind of sacrifice.
Donald R Burleson’s Christmas Carrion is simple but oh so delightful. Like Michael Tice’s story, the only tie this story has to the whole theme of the anthology is that the tale is set in Kingsport. An ancient man is haunted by the ghosts of his former crew mates, and really nice things happen. Seriously.
Erik T Johnson’s The Depopulation Syndrome is a pretty unique tale in this anthology – it presents allergy as a means by dark, primordial forces beyond our comprehension to come back to this world and take over. The story itself isn’t that impressive – it’s flatly in the filler chiller territory – but the premise is quite intriguing.
Cody Goodfellow presents dark comedy and some occasional moments of creepiness in Uncle Sid’s Collection, in which our heroine discovers how awful life can be when her hoarder uncle, whom she’s staying with, starts collecting people. Weird, possibly dangerous people. I like this story. It can be absurd in an over top manner, like a trip down the rabbit hole into a world where the weird people are out to be nice to you in ways that can really bring on the hurt.
Brian M Sammons’s Father’s Day starts out like another tale of some guy who travels to Innsmouth to seek out his father and discover why he looks so different from others (webbed fingers, scaly green skin – that kind of thing). This story isn’t what it seems, however, and I give it lots of love for catching me by surprise and being fun to read in the process.
Darrell Schweitzer is back with Innsmouth Idyll, which is a nice coming of age story of young love, sexual awakening, and meeting the great big creepy thing at the bottom of the sea. It’s quite a sweet and touching story, believe it or not.
Will Murray presents a post-apocalyptic world in The Hour of Our Triumph, in which the Great Old Ones have awakened and taken over the world, turning humans into slaves, food, and worse. But some still resist, and our hero is part of the military resistance in the USA. However, in this story, something is coming – something big, that may be too hot even the Great Old Ones to handle… This one is like a pulp sci-fi tale that completes with an ending all about hopelessness and such. It’s a nice tale, if a bit of a filler despite its interesting premise.
Finally, Pete Rawlik closes the anthology with Here Be Monsters, where a cult of Cthulhu, working undercover as respectable marine researchers, secretly plan an excursion into the deep waters to awaken Cthulhu. What these guys discover end up shattering their belief. Of all the stories here, this one has the closest ties to HP Lovecraft’s mythos, even expanding on its basic premise of atomic bomb tests in the past being a cover for the military’s efforts to destroy Cthulhu. Instead of a mere standard tale of people loving the slime ball at the bottom of the sea, however, this story is more about an uncovering a mystery that leads to a crisis of faith. It’s like The Da Vinci Code in reverse, I guess. This is occasionally a thought-provoking tale, making it a great story to close the anthology.
Dead But Dreaming 2 has its share of filler stories, but all in all, they are all pretty readable in their own way. I also like how this anthology contains stories that are diverse and different despite being tied together by a common theme. It’s a great way to spend a day or two in that dark place inspired by HP Lovecraft’s brand of horror.